Energy industry insiders say a new House probe of hydraulic fracturing is unlikely to hinder development of new domestic shale gas plays or stall a massive merger between Exxon Mobil Corp. and a large independent gas producer.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s two top Democrats asked eight oil-field service firms last week for details about chemicals they use during hydraulic fracturing, a decades-old drilling technique that blasts sand, chemicals and water into a wellbore to break apart compact rock and release hydrocarbons. The lawmakers also publicized for the first time details of a similar investigation that revealed that two drillers used diesel in their fracturing fluids in violation of a voluntary agreement with U.S. EPA.
“They’re certainly putting a new torpedo in the water,” said Jason Hutt, a partner at the Washington office of Bracewell & Giuliani. “There’s going to be a burden to respond to all this.”
“But frankly,” he added, “I think they’re fear-mongering.”
Moves by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, come after months of congressional debate about the drilling technique, which has helped open access to massive domestic natural gas plays and also has raised concerns among environmentalists and some lawmakers about the technique’s environmental impacts and whether it is adequately regulated by individual states.
Waxman and Markey launched their inquiry just days after EPA’s top drinking water official said he had not seen documented evidence of contamination caused by fracturing and that state regulators were doing a good job overseeing the process.
“The week started out pretty good for us,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry-backed group Energy in Depth. “Anytime the top drinking water official acknowledges the tremendous track record of state regulators, that’s a nice feather in your cap.”
Industry advocates say Waxman and Markey tried to spoil their good week and tilt the debate toward environmentalists.
“The debate was not trending in the direction opponents of fracturing wanted it to go,” Hutt said. “They had this one at the ready … and it let them steal the debate back a little bit.”
The oil and gas industry has used hydraulic fracturing for years to stimulate production from aging wells, and more recently, it has used the technique to tap unconventional sources of oil and natural gas, like coalbed methane and shale gas.
Concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing in coal seams on underground drinking water supplies led to a series of lawsuits in the late 1990s and early 2000s that prompted EPA to regulate the drilling practice under the Safe Drinking Water Act and study its environmental impact.
The EPA study, released in 2004, found that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat” to drinking water.
Environmentalists contended that the study was scientifically unsound, but Congress endorsed it and used it to override the earlier decision to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Lawmakers specifically exempted the practice from federal regulation in a broad 2005 energy law.